Key Kabuki Words Key Kabuki Words
Kabuki is spectacular and you don’t have to know anything to enjoy it. But a little bit of information about a few of the terms and the plays makes it even better.
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Chikamatsu Monzaemon / 近松門左衛門

Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653 – 1724) was born to a samurai family in what is now Fukui prefecture but soon moved to Kyoto where he spent his youth serving members of the imperial court. He gained a deep knowledge of Japanese classical literature and noh plays and eventually started writing texts for some of the early narrators for puppet theater. For a time he also wrote for the kabuki theater, especially plays featuring Sakata Tojuro I (1647 – 1709). The talented narrator Takemoto Gidayu (1651 – 1714) used Chikamatsu's texts and then had Chikamatsu write plays for him and eventually, Chikamatsu became head playwright of the Takemoto-za theater in 1705. Chikamatsu's reworking of the world of classical noh plays established the structure of jidaimono historical play plots in both puppet theater and kabuki and he created the genre of sewamono plays as a proper dramatic genre focused on the world of ordinary commoners and giving their lives a dimension of high tragedy.

Please see Key Kabuki Words - kabuki terms in the program page of "Wagoto: Ladies' Man as Hero"

Kokusenya Kassen / 国性爺合戦

A jidaimono history play by Chikamatsu first performed in 1715 at the Takemoto-za, this was one of the biggest hits of the time and ran for three years. It was the first play after the death of Takemoto Gidayu and showed that puppet theater could be performed around other narrators as well. The play dramatized the exotic story of Tei Seiko, a man with a Chinese father and Japanese mother who fought to restore the Ming dynasty after the establishment of the Ching dynasty. He occupied the island of Taiwan as a base for his operations by driving out the Dutch, which became the first occasion for an Asian power having victory over a European power. The play also incorporates the kabuki style of aragoto and is important because it is one of the few plays by Chikamatsu that has a continuous performance tradition and can provide some clues to the musical style of Chikamatsu's plays when they were first produced.

Takemoto-za / 竹本座

A theater established in the Dotonbori entertainment district in Osaka in 1684 by the narrator Takemoto Gidayu (1651 – 1714) who established his form of chanting as the premier dramatic style. Many of his texts were by Chikamatsu Monzaemon and in 1705 when Takeda Izumo I became the manager of the Takemoto-za, Chikamatsu became the staff playwright of the theater and the scale and variety of plays produced there increased. The Takemoto-za spawned a rival in Dotonbori, the Toyotake-za, which had a contrasting style of puppet drama. Even after the death of Gidayu and Chikamatsu, the Takemoto-za continued to be one of the top theaters of puppet theater until the end of the 18th century.

Ningyo Joruri / 人形浄瑠璃(文楽)

Puppet theater is now called "Bunraku" because this was the name of the last remaining troupe of puppet theater in the 19th century which was the precursor of puppet theater today. Originally it was called "ningyo joruri" "ningyo" = "puppet or doll" and "joruri" = "narrative music." There is a long tradition of puppet plays, many in temples and shrines and the use of a variety of dolls in religious rituals. In the 16th century, this came together with a separate tradition of narrative music to form plays illustrated by puppets. Today puppet theater is described as bringing together three art forms: puppets, narrative singing performed by a tayu and the instrumental music of the shamisen.

Shinju / 心中

Double suicide or love suicide, the word literally means "in the heart" with the idea that sincerity is shown through death. Usually this is actually a killing-suicide, with one person killing the other and then killing themselves. But this was a very dirty and sordid thing in the Edo period and it is likely that pure love was not actually the main issue in most "love suicides." The bodies of the couple were exposed to be seen by the public and the families of the dead couple faced shame and legal punishment. It is part of Chikamatsu's great achievement to have given some tragic beauty to such an ugly act through the resources of theater and literature.